Whether you prefer your pad thai mild or blanket your pizza in a flurry of pepper flakes, you’ve probably heard a few claims about the health benefits of spicy foods.
In fact, throughout history, foods like cayenne pepper and chili powder have been used to treat everything from toothaches to sore throats to the common cold. Why? The benefits stem from one ingredient: capsaicin—the compound in chili peppers responsible for the “hot” or numbing sensation you feel when chowing down on something spicy.
“A lot of times, it can be really difficult to study the benefits that people attribute to spicy foods,” says Radhika Aggarwal, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Henry Ford Health.
To help us discern flavor fact from flavor fiction, we asked Dr. Aggarwal to address a few common claims about fiery foods and the science behind them.
1. Claim: Spicy foods can induce labor. True or False?
False. Simply put, there’s no direct connection between the stomach and the uterus, so although many women have tried to kick start the birthing process with the help of something spicy, it’s not likely to help. “We don’t have any evidence that spicy foods can induce labor,” Dr. Aggarwal says, “but that doesn’t stop people from trying.” In fact, in a 2011 study, almost 11 percent of women surveyed tried eating something spicy to speed things along.
2. Claim: Spicy foods help you lose weight. True or False?
True (sort of). “Capsaicin stimulates the brown fat in your body, which expends energy as heat,” Dr. Aggarwal says. “So when you eat it, you are burning calories, but it’s a pretty small amount. Measurable, but small.” So while ingesting capsaicin can temporarily increase metabolism (by about eight percent), don’t rely on it to help you sculpt your beach body.
3. Claim: Spicy foods cause ulcers. True or False?
False. Despite the long held belief that peptic ulcers are caused by stress or eating certain foods, the vast majority of cases are almost always caused by the bacteria H.pylori or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen. In fact, a 2006 study found that capsaicin can actually play a role in preventing or healing stomach ulcers.
4. Claim: Spicy foods can kill your taste buds. True or False?
False. When you ingest capsaicin, your mouth temporarily goes numb, but that doesn’t mean your taste buds are dying. “Capsaicin stimulates your body the same way heat does, which is why we say something is ‘hot,’” Dr. Aggarwal says. “You can even burn yourself with capsaicin if you eat a lot of it, but the numbness you feel is your body’s defense mechanism against the ingredient.”
5. Claim: Spicy foods cause acid reflux. True or False?
False (sort of). “According to research, acid reflux is not caused by spicy foods, but it exacerbates it,” Dr. Aggarwal says. “In other words, spicy foods can make your acid reflux worse.” Bottom line: If you’re prone to acid reflux or have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), you should pass on the hot sauce.
As with most foods (regardless of their health benefits), spices are safest to consume in moderation. For those who bite off more than they can chew and need a quick cool down, however, water typically isn’t the best source for extinguishing the burn. Instead, reach for milk, yogurt, bread or — our favorite — chocolate.